Building Web Forums

Some forums are more equal than others, with some active and lively, and others quieter than snow. Over the years, we’ve built both bombs and bombshells, learning along the way. Here are some pointers on building forums based on our experience.

Moderators Make the Mission.  Our first forum, The PC Forum about personal computing, has always been a magnet for new PC users with problems. It taught us that forums don’t “take care of themselves,” but must be moderated to stay on mission. The moderator’s job is to quickly delete off-point messages, and just as quickly to answer, or find someone to answer, those that he wants to encourage. Without a moderator, a forum soon drifts into uncharted waters, and eventually sinks. (Hint: The PC Forum needs a moderator.)

Software Makes a Difference.  The PC Forum and our next forum, now called the Genealogy Forum of Long Island were both built using a simple Perl script by Matt Wright. The script was a barebones but popular affair whose minimal feature-count was cured by add-ons written by others. But it was primitive — chewing up server resources and presenting hackers with more meat than a herd of hippos. It was so poor that a group of experienced coders got together and produced a drop-in replacement for that and Matt’s other scripts under the NMS acronym (politely expanded to Not Matt’s Stuff). The good thing: Matt’s script was search-engine friendly, encouraging spiders to index the main board (homepage) and every last message.

Ouch: Dynamic Pages, Proprietary Formats.  That wasn’t true of the first version of our next forum, Mohawk ShopTalk, a forum about automotive equipment in general, and Mohawk lifts in particular. This forum was built to support our network of Mohawk distributors, and today with NMS scripts it does, generating from 10-20% of each distributor’s traffic. But it was initially built using a clever script from Darryl Burgdorf, which created the main board on the fly, and stored messages in a neat proprietary format. Unfortunately, search engines couldn’t index the main board — which didn’t exist as a static webpage — and they simply ignored the individual messages.

And Ouch Again.  Darryl’s isn’t the only script that gives spiders the cold shoulder. Any script that generates pages on the fly (i.e., when called up, or dynamically) or that stores messages in database format (think MySQL) will probably do poorly in search engines. Before you build a forum, check out live examples that use the script. Find snippets of unique text in two-three week old messages and see if those snippets are indexed by Google and Yahoo!. If not, pass on the script, unless you’re building a forum for your company intranet, where indexing by search engines doesn’t matter.

Frames a No-No, Too.  Dynamic pages and databases aren’t the only way to make a forum that search engines ignore. The use of framesets and frames is another way. This HTML coding technique is nifty: with it, you can make a fixed menu panel control the contents of a display panel. Nifty but shifty. Unless you remember to create a parallel “no frames” version, a forum set up with frames will fly right under the radar of all current search engines. We learned this the hard way with METRO: The Real Estate Forum for NY, NJ, CT Buyers, Sellers and Owners, which is currently being revamped to eliminate frames.

Hackers, Commercial Posts.  As web forums become successful, they attract not only constituent visitors, but a variety of leeches. Entrepreneurs looking for free advertising hover over forums like gulls at a beach party. Fortunately, once their graffiti is deleted and the software set up to ban them by email or IP address, they usually go elsewhere. More pernicious are the bot-writing hackers, working for commercial interests, who SPAM forums with messages for pharmaceuticals, pornography, stocks, loans, and love for sale. To thwart these suckers you need to select software that prevents duplicate posts and closely-spaced multiple posts from the same source. Your software should also require registration before posting, and in the case of ongoing problems, use opt-in registration where the board sends the registrant a password before allowing posts. Also helpful with hackers — and the foul-mouthed — is the ability to automatically censor posts based on a blacklist of undesirable words.

Boring Topic? Dead Forum!  If you’re beginning to feel that building and moderating a forum is a full-time job, you’re right. After all, if it’s successful, you might well join Craig Newmark (think craigslist) on line at the deposit window. Okay, fantasy over. More likely, you’ll do everything right and still wind up with an unsuccessful forum. We did. Our first bomb was the forum now successfully devoted to genealogy on Long Island. It used to be devoted to the history of Oyster Bay. Right. Nobody cared, other than the historical society that nominally “sponsored” it. Another bomb: the ValTalk Appraisal Forum, about appraisals and appraising. Even more people don’t care about that. Everybody wants to know what grandma’s vase is worth, but nobody wants to talk about the process of valuation. Of course, it doesn’t help that this forum is built with software that might graciously be characterized as piggishly ponderous. As always on the web, speed counts.

Another Trip.  Our latest forum, the Bryant Gardens Forum, a community forum for the residents of the Bryant Gardens Cooperative in White Plains, NY is another trip entirely. Bryant Gardens sign at entrance to cooperative apartment complex. We built it using open source YABB software, which handles the problems discussed above, and has lots of add-ons available. Why another trip? This one’s for a community full of ideas and looking for an outlet. Offering news, views, stories and classifieds, we had twenty registered members in two days and hundreds of visitors. And although it’s showing up nicely in the search engines — thanks Yahoo! and Google — this time we recruited members the old-fashioned way, with handbills and notes tucked on resident’s doors. See what I mean? Another trip!

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